Okaloosa voters to decide School District sales tax
The last issue listed on the Nov. 3 general election ballot for Okaloosa County voters would, with majority approval, bring much-needed upgrades to area schools, say members of the “School Cents Makes Sense” political action committee.
The referendum will ask voters to approve a 10-year, half-cent sales tax that would generate an estimated $256 million in revenue over its lifespan. The county School District has 42 schools and a total of about $500 million in project needs.
If approved, the tax would take effect Jan. 1 and generate money to pay for projects such as repairs to school roofs, the replacement of portable classrooms with brick-and-mortar ones, HVAC unit replacements, technology improvements and upgrades to the district’s bus fleet, which is the oldest in Florida.
The district’s full list of project needs, based on evaluations of schools and discussions with principals, parents and teachers, is found at www.schoolcentsmakessense.com/#/.
Salaries, bonuses, administrative costs and legal fees cannot be funded with any of the revenue from the proposed tax.
The projects the money would pay for “are not fluffy things” such as a new band room or soccer stadium, said local businessman Vince Mayfield, who is the chairman of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce board of directors and is helping spearhead the sales tax campaign.
He and fellow PAC member Michelle Anchors, a local attorney, are both products of and have children in Okaloosa schools.
Among challenges facing the School District is its reliance on 167 portable classrooms, they said. The portables are basically trailers that have an average age of 27 years and are not nearly as storm-hardy as traditional classrooms, they said.
“Most of the schools are at capacity, and when they’re at capacity, by law they have to have these portables,” said Mayfield, who added that some of the proposed sales tax funding would pay to replace various portables with new wings on the main school buildings.
“The last time we made an investment in the schools was 1995,” when voters approved a three-year, 1 cent sales tax, he said.
Revenue from that tax paid for three new schools and other projects, Mayfield said.
Still, 75% of the existing schools are more than 45 years old, Anchors noted.
“Old schools in and of themselves are not a problem as long as you continue to invest in the infrastructure of those schools, to allow them to continue to serve their purpose of being strong and stable physical environments for teachers and kids,” she said. “But if you have old schools and they are allowed to deteriorate, because we do not have a base of adequate funding, then we as a local community are not doing our job as citizens.”
In Okaloosa County, “We’ve effectively traded status quo and lower (property) taxes, and we’ve got the infrastructure across the county and within the school system to prove it,” said Mayfield, who is a self-described conservative Republican. “No matter how you slice it, if you look at Okaloosa County schools, they are underfunded.”
He said that while the school districts of Okaloosa and Walton counties each have an annual property-tax funded capital improvement budget of about $30 million, Walton County’s share is spent on a district with about 12,000 students, while Okaloosa’s is for a district with almost 31,000 students.
The disparity stems from the fact that a good portion of land in Okaloosa is either federally- or state-controlled for military installations, ecological purposes and other reasons and cannot be taxed, Mayfield said.
He also noted that Florida ranks 43rd in the nation in per-pupil spending, and that such spending is expected to drop even more because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In November 2018, Okaloosa voters approved the county’s 10-year half-cent sales tax, which took effect at the start of 2019. Revenue from that tax is used by the county and its municipalities to help pay for needs such as public safety, transportation and stormwater system capital upgrades and public safety equipment purchases.
Like that tax, the proposed half-penny tax for schools would apply to all transactions subject to the state tax imposed on sales, use, services, rentals, admissions and other authorized transactions.
It would apply to only the first $5,000 of any single taxable item, such as motor vehicles, mobile homes or boats, when sold to the same purchaser at the same time.
When added to the state’s 6-cents-on-the-dollar sales tax and the county’s half-penny sales tax, the proposed half-cent sales tax for schools would increase the overall sales tax in the county to 7%, which equals $0.70 per $10 purchase.
If the proposed tax is approved, an advisory committee of volunteers with expertise in finance, project management, construction and other areas would help review proposed projects. The committee would be subject to Florida’s Sunshine Law on open government, and any project it recommends would need the School Board’s approval.
“I hear all the time that the schools ‘have to sharpen their pencil,’ they have to ‘tighten their belt,’” Mayfield said. “But you’re basically asking them to squeeze blood out of a stone. They’re already underfunded, and they’ve cut things to the bare bones.”
Anchors said the sales tax initiative is being driven by private-sector businesses “because the options are limited, but the need is critical.”
The options are implementing the proposed sales tax, increasing property taxes or doing nothing, she said.
“We cannot continue as a business community to expect A+ results with C- buildings,” Anchors said. “We have first-rate teachers, we have engaged parents and we have a supportive business community. And now we need the citizens of Okaloosa County to express that they also value a higher standard in our public schools.”